Paper dispute costs city $4K; Council rings up big legal bill defending selection of Tower paper

by Tom Coombe
The Ely City Council’s decision to send its legal publishing business came with a price - one of nearly $4,000.
Earlier this week, council members approved payment of $3,855 to the Klun Law Firm, for legal fees associated with the dispute over the January decision to name the Tower-based Timberjay as the city’s officials newspaper.
The decision prompted legal and ethical challenges, was revisited at a pair of subsequent council meetings and led to the formation of a task force, which held a secret meeting to discuss the issue.
It also resulted in hours of work for city attorney Kelly Klun, who was directed by council members to look into the matter and prepared extensive packets of information as the controversy erupted.
The matter required work beyond the two hours per matter covered in the firm’s monthly retainer, and led to the bill that was approved unanimously by the council on Tuesday, along with the remainder of the city’s monthly bills and payroll expenses.
While never directly addressed during a brief council meeting, mayor Chuck Novak appeared to reference the bill as council members weighed engaging legal services on another matter - the proposed sale of a business park lot to Chip Hanson, owner of the Ely Veterinary Clinic.
“I just want to make you aware that we may be in for a huge expense here,” Novak cautioned council members. “If you look at the bills today you see one in there on an issue.”
Novak added that he was “not trying to be disparaging to our attorney.... Kelly does excellent work for us.”
Instead, Novak said he wanted to make sure council members are aware that should they seek the firm to do work beyond the retainer, “there might be an extraordinary expense with it.”
Some on the council cited cost savings in backing their decision to end the city’s association with the locally-owned and operated Ely Echo, which pays commercial property taxes on Chapman Street, and instead send the city’s publishing business to the Timberjay, which is housed in Tower and claims that the home of its Ely editor is its legal “office of issue.”
The Timberjay submitted the lower bid in sample advertisements submitted by the respective newspapers, but representatives of the Echo objected on numerous grounds, both legal and ethical.
Echo General Manager Nick Wognum cited documentation that showed the Timberjay did not meet the legal requirements to be a legal newspaper at the time bids were submitted, and took issue with the city taking its business out of town.
Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the Timberjay, maintained that the home office was enough to meet legal requirements to bid on the city contract, which includes publishing meeting minutes and public announcements.
In a letter to city attorney Kelly Klun, Helmberger also said that city officials, who he did not identify, “were practically begging us,” to bid for the city contract.